ACARA Head Admits There is Little Evidence for Reporting School Results

There is little research evidence to show that reporting school results leads to better student performance according to Peter Hill, the newly-appointed chief executive of the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority. His admission is a fatal blow to the case for publishing school results.

Hill told a forum on league tables in Sydney last Friday (23rd October) that the evidence is mixed (see Daily Telegraph report).

He said that while some studies show that student achievement does improve, many studies show little or no impact. He also said that the effects are generally small, and he noted that there was no evidence that racial inequalities were reduced by public reporting.

This is a stunning admission from the executive charged with implementing Australia’s new curriculum and reporting system.

The Federal Minister for Education, Julia Gillard, has never conceded these points. Instead, she has relied on selective and misleading evidence to show positive results from reporting school results. She has simply ignored evidence from studies that show little or no impact or declines in achievement. Obviously, she is not going to let facts get in the way of a simplistically appealing policy.

Hill has now exposed the shallow basis on which the Federal Government’s case for reporting school results rests. Mixed evidence is no foundation for policy – particularly if that policy has the potential to do other harm as is the case in publishing school results.

Hill acknowledged that there is extensive evidence that high stakes accountability leads to a narrowing of the curriculum and to “gaming” of school results to make them look better than they are actually. These are also points that Gillard has refused to concede.

Despite the lack of evidence, Hill nevertheless said he believes that reporting school results is worthwhile and that it can be used to drive improved learning. Yet, when there is little evidence that it improves student achievement and there is strong evidence it narrows curriculum and teaching, it is hard to see any education case for publishing school results.

Hill was part of a panel of speakers at a forum for education stakeholders sponsored by the Daily Telegraph. The other speakers were Verity Firth, NSW Minister for Education, and Andrew Blair, President of the Australian Secondary Principals’ Association.

During question time at the forum, Hill intervened to protect the NSW Education Minister from questioning on the research evidence that reporting school results improves student achievement. Trevor Cobbold, National Convenor of Save Our Schools, had asked the Minister what evidence she had to support her policy.

Hill said it was unfair to expect a Minister to be able to cite research studies to support a policy. Many in the audience were disturbed by the way in which Hill attempted to shield the Minister from having to justify a policy with such serious ramifications for so many schools and their communities. This was simply made worse by the fact that he could not justify the policy either.

Verity Firth chose not to answer the question after Hill’s intervention. This gave a clear impression that she didn’t know whether there is significant evidence to support her endorsement of reporting school results or support her aggressive criticism of opponents of the scheme. This complete failure on the part of the NSW Minister should be taken up by the NSW Parliament.

Hill’s admission that the evidence on reporting school results is mixed poses a direct challenge to the Federal Education Minister. Julia Gillard preaches the virtue of evidence-based policy in education, yet ignores this principle when it does not suit her.

She has wholeheartedly endorsed the New York City reporting model, despite the evidence that its results are ‘phony’, ‘fraudulent’ and amount to ‘institutionalized lying’. She has praised the closing of racial gaps in educational outcomes in New York, based on state results that are inconsistent with independent national test results.

Gillard has conspicuously failed to support her case for reporting school results with substantial research evidence. Hill admissions point to the need to look at the research more comprehensively than has been done so far.

If the Deputy Prime Minister really believes in accountability and transparency, the new reporting scheme should be subjected to a full independent national inquiry. It is time the true costs and benefits of the scheme were fully examined before it is too late.

Trevor Cobbold

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